Dean Martin, the driving force of KOHR Motorsports started his racing life in a rough and tumble place. There were no silver spoons, no big houses.
Martin did not grow up in the shadow of a famous racer. His family did not have a vast fortune to fuel his passion for cars. Quite the contrary, Martin said, “Growing up, there was more than one time we were on public assistance”. Not one to sit back and remain in a given place, he started working in the construction business. While working on homes, fate came calling in the form of a ride in a friend’s car. “I went for a ride with one of my friends. He had a 1987 Mustang LX 5-liter. I was just impressed with how fast it was”. About two weeks later, Martin sold his Pontiac Trans Am and bought a Mustang. From that moment, he started hanging out at a Burger King in Brockton, MA. “The Burger King was the meetup spot”, as he explains, “We always used to hang out and then head up to the mall to drag race”. He got deep into drag racing. Basically, if he wasn’t working, working on his car, or hanging with his car friends, he was drag racing.
With a newfound interest, Martin enrolled in a Bachelor of Science program in mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Studying Mechanical Engineering, he became enamored with Formula SAE (FASE), a student competition where a team of students design, build and compete with their own car. As a part of the program, his team participated in autocross with the car they built. Martin enjoyed the event so much he decided to start autocross racing his Mustang as well.
Although Martin had entered the world of motorsports, even at a small level of local autocross events, that would not be his most important influence, that would actually be his connections. His network of fellow students became friends that would propel him into his automotive life. Greg Sibley, a Ford employee, and associate of his college FSAE program called and invited him to come out to a track day at Waterford Hills in Michigan. He told Martin, “You’ll have to put a cage in the car”. Martin upgraded his car, installing the roll cage and he brought the car to what he thought was a track day, in reality, it was a full competition school. Without knowing it Martin was on the path from going from auto crossing to obtaining his professional competition driver’s license by completing the school. He says “I had no idea, but I had a lot of fun.”
Several classmates made the move to Detroit and encouraged Martin to follow. Without a source of income, he packed up and moved. With the right education, jobs were plentiful in the automotive industry. Martin took some time to check out the city, and after a couple of days, he decided he should probably try to find a job. Within a week, he was working at Roush Enterprises. He began working in Roush’s newly opened rapid prototyping department. They worked on solid modeling, CAD profiles, and frame analysis for the NASCAR teams. Ironically one of those teams was Mark Martin’s number 6 Valvoline Thunderbird.
Ford Special Vehicle Team
Eventually, the opportunity came up for Martin to join Ford. Ford Motor Company’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT), Ford’s Halo department for all things Ford performance had Sibley on their staff. Sibley’s boss asked him whether he knew of anyone who might be able to be added to the team. Sibley immediately thought of Martin. At that time, Martin happened to be working on a project with Ford. “Oddly enough at the same time I was designing wheel protector for the ‘98 Cobra wheels because the factory was scratching them as they would go down the line.” Martin was brought on as a contractor to Ford, but after Sibley’s recommendation, he was offered a full-time position at SVT.
At SVT, he worked on the SVT’s performance versions of Ford’s lineup. He worked on the SVT Focus, the SVT Contour, SVT F150 Lightning and the SVT Mustang Cobra. His new working life didn’t allow him much time to run out to the racetrack, but working at SVT got to work closely with companies like Multimatic.
Multimatic the Candian company who most race teams turn to and who today currently builds the new Ford GT, Ford GT Mark II, and the Mustang GT4 car, and they also helped Ford win Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of their iconic 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans 1-2-3 finish in 2016. His connections with them would benefit his career in other ways in the future.
Martin also met a man named Larry Rehagen. Rehagen was the owner of a small Ford race team. Rehagen’s then crew chief was walking through the SVT office and a co-worker introduced him to Martin. “If you ever want to come out and help us out at the race track, we would always love to have your help,” Martin recalls. He took him up on the offer and he ended up helping the team as an engineer and driver before eventually, he becoming co-owner of the team.
Back at his daily job at SVT, Martin was working on the 2000 Mustang Cobra R, Ford’s track-ready exclusive Mustang with only 300 units being produced. He didn’t have a lot of free time but once the weekend he was able to get away and take Rahagen’s crew chief up on his offer, traveling to Road America to see the team race. “I showed up with a laptop and [started] doing [some] engineer stuff, talking to the drivers, and asking them about the car and telling the mechanics to make changes,” says Martin, “I just remember the veterans—the guys who had been working with Larry for a long time—They were looking at me [thinking] ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” It didn’t take long for Martin to gain credibility among the team because every time they went out, they went quicker and quicker. At the end of the first weekend, the team gained its first podium finish.
The team’s next event was at Mosport (now the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) in Canada. “Larry [Rehagen] called me and said his co-driver, Rick, couldn’t make it so we aren’t going to go unless they could find another driver”. Martin asked what it would take to co-drive? Rehagen explained that it costs about $5000 a weekend to race as a team, so half of that. At this point, Martin had a pretty decent income from his position at Ford so decided to take the seat, pay half of the money and compete in the race as a co-driver. You can imagine what this veteran crew was thinking at this point. First, Martin comes out with his computer and now, he’s driving?
As Martin hopped into the car for his stint he kept asking “what are my lap times?” The team responded, “Oh, pretty good”. When he got the chance to get out and go over the data to see if the car needs any changes, he thinks “where are my lap times?” A crewmember responds, “Well your second to (Terry) Borcheller. We’re 2 tenths off of first!” Martin had proved that not only could he set up a race car, but he could drive one too.
But back at Ford, things weren’t looking good for SVT. John Colletti, a larger than life executive at SVT was getting pushed out of the company. With the loss of that visionary, SVT was going through a downturn. Martin became very unhappy continuing to work there, so in 2003, he went to Rehagen and said that he wanted to do a little more driving. The two men went over a budget and figured out what they could afford to make a more serious racing effort. They solidified their plans and started.
Before, the team basically existed solely off of prize money. Martin sourced an old racing chassis along with an old prototype 2000 Cobra R. They transformed those cars into certified racing specifications and then started racing. At the end of the season, they build another car. They added revenue by renting out one race car, while Rehagen and Martin drove their newest car.
During the racing season, Martin had an defining moment, winning at Daytona in a racecar that was basically finished in the parking lot. He says, “The way the whole race worked out; you couldn’t have scripted it any better”
Things snowballed from there. The team had a lot of interest in renting cars. They would haul the cars separately to each race. They bought a Toterhome, a luxury car carrying motor home/transport, that would haul thee cars, equipment, as well as providing a place to sleep. Martin wore many hats, becoming the team’s truck driver, engineer, car driver, travel agent, and shop foreman—it was extremely busy, but life was good!
As businesses grow, they usually have someone who becomes a catalyst for change. For Martin, that person was a mechanic named Jesse Cox. Cox was working at one of the major suppliers that do a lot of prototypes and support work for Ford. That company started to lose a little bit of Ford business and some of their projects were going slow. They had Cox driving delivery van to keep him occupied. “Jesse called me up one day and said I’m really frustrated, really tired of driving this delivery van. Do you think you guys could hire me full-time and keep me busy?” recalls Martin. He called Rehagen explaining the situation saying, “Jesse is looking for something full time”. Martin and Rehagen decided they would give it a try, and they hired Cox. That’s when things started getting better. The Team went from three guys working on cars after hours in separate garages to them needing to find an actual facility. With this added efficiency, Rehagen Racing started to become many things: car rentals, car and parts sales, and of course, the race team.
Martin started his own company, KOHR motorsports, in 2003. He bought and sold surplus racing safety equipment. He made a relationship with Sparco USA, where he would buy their discontinued items. “There was no one in the area selling suits; you couldn’t go anywhere and try on suits”, says Martin, so, he made KOHR his part-time job while he was still working at Ford. “KOHR was always there in the background” he explained. Whenever Rehagen needed supplies for the race team, KOHR would be a parts supplier. As time wore on it became more convoluted with KOHR inventory getting intermingled with Rehagen inventory. It got to the point where KOHR had more inventory to sell than Rehagen did. At the time it was all being sold through Rehagen.
The racing teams had now become his full-time job as he took a one-year leave of absence from Ford, that never ended—he never went back.
The relationship between Rehagen Racing and KOHR Motorsports continued to become more and more complicated, and in January 2016 Rehagen and Martin dissolved the partnership. From then forward the team fell under KOHR. The partnership never had any kind of paperwork to form it, something most would advise against doing, but for Martin and Rehagen, it worked out just fine. At the end of 2015, the building they occupied was sold, and they moved to their current location in Westland, Michigan.
KOHR had a special relationship with Ford. All of their customers drove Fords. They assisted in the development of Ford’s GT4 racing Mustang, so it was a shock when this year they announced that they would be now be racing Aston Martins.
KOHR drivers, Nate Stacy and Kyle Marcelli continue to pilot the cars, but the switch was precipitated by the Balance of Performance (BOP). “It’s more about BOP. It’s a combination of things but mostly about the BOP. The Mustang last year got, I want to say ‘screwed.’ The BOP system just didn’t work last year, and I think the Mustang suffered more than anything. I don’t want to point fingers—I can’t point fingers, because I don’t know exactly where to point fingers, [but] I do know that a lot of things that were wrong never got corrected.”
Towards the end of last year, the team was talking about switching to Aston Martin. They saw the car as fast and it had a lot of potential. KOHR noticed that even when the Aston Martins laid down blindingly fast laps, the series did nothing about it. The current process is that a car has to do well in two races before they slow it down. The Aston never had any changes to slow them down, mainly because there were a lot of gentlemen racers teamed with pro driver scenarios So, the car never showed its full potential. KOHR talked about it and ultimately, started thinking about its budget.
“We didn’t want to look like we were racing against the factory.” They thought they might be able to get more Mustang clients, but they also wanted to advance to classes outside of GT4. They looked at the GT Daytona class in IMSA and GT3. With consolation with Ford, they knew that Ford wasn’t planning on racing the Ford GT and there were no signs that a Mustang GT3 car would debut, and their drivers, Nate and Kyle, both want to progress to the next level and the Team feels they are ready for it.
Around December 15th, Ford Multimatic announced a driver development program with Hailee Deegan and a continuation of the program with the NASCAR drivers. They are going to have three cars at Daytona and do a limited schedule. That created a problem for the teams who were already dedicated to that series. “You are spending a million dollars to try and win a championship, trying to make your drivers champions, when the factory team announces they are going to come back for five races and they have one goal: to win. It’s going to screw up the BOP for anybody that’s in it for the championship,” said Martin.
A decision had to be made. While KOHR understood that Ford does not have a driver development program in IMSA, bringing NASCAR drivers to run in IMSA for road race experience causes hardship for those who concentrate solely on the series. So, Mike Stacey, very much a Ford enthusiast and Nates Dad, had to make a decision on what was best for the team and the drivers. In the end, the direction was clear—to transition to Aston Martins. The team felt that Ford did not see the team’s potential or the potential of their drivers. Although they now race Aston Martins, they still support Ford teams and their loyal Ford customers.
If Ford didn’t see the potential in the KOHR organization, Aston Martin certainly did. Kohr first reached out to Aston Martin through an intermediary. Aston replied that there’s no way anyone could a car until after the Daytona race. “We aren’t doing any allocations until the first week of February.” KOHR then decided to reveal to Aston that it was asking, they called Aston Martin and said: “It’s KOHR Motorsports who is inquiring and we are ready to make the move.” Well, that quickly changed things like a couple of hours later, they received a phone call saying that they would have a car in early January. Driver Nate Stacy remarked, “Hey, [Carroll] Shelby drove for Aston Martin.”
The car was ready to ship from England on January 6th. It arrived early and as soon as they could get their car in their hands, they took it to the track to test it at Homestead. “It was just a fulltime job for three guys…” Martin explained.
In their first race, at Daytona, with the Aston’s they finished fifth. That finish says a lot about the team and the talent of their drivers. Of Aston Martin, Martin says “It’s a great race car, and guys at Aston Martin have really been open to working with us and our suggestions.” It’s been an interesting start and it’s going to be an interesting year. It would seem Aston Martin is going to be a great partner.
Martin and his new role
Martin has not been behind the wheel much lately, and unlike a lot of drivers, he’s fine with that. “I’ve got so much other stuff going on over the race weekend. It would be difficult for me to be able to get into the car and focus on driving. With drivers like Nate Stacey and Kyle Marcelli, you don’t even feel the need to be out there says, Martin. I get the same kind of satisfaction I did when I drove from the engineering side of it. When I can make the car better when I can make my drivers feel better about the car. It gives me that sense of accomplishment”.
Martin also loves the strategy of the race. “When you got guys like Joe Vardi, Mike Johnson, and Ford Multimatic’s Jay O’Connell who I hold in the highest regard. When I can sit on the box and out snooker them in strategy, or even if we are on the same strategy, I’m feeling pretty good about my decisions”. Martin did say, “If an opportunity comes up if a sponsor comes in and says we want to run a second car and you need to drive it, I’m in. I’ll be back at the gym and getting myself back into physical shape. Because I’m clearly stupid enough to drive a race car. So, I got that covered”.
KOHR has changed throughout the years. Now driving Astons, Martin no longer in the seat and some team members have moved on. Although Rehagen still works with the team, key team member Cox has moved onto Roush.
Throughout it all, Martin has been the Captain that navigates tough waters with the help of a damn good crew. The river is far from dry, sail on KOHR Motorsports—sail on.